When my wife puts my 5-year-old son to bed, I get a few moments alone with my daughter, 18-month-old Mandolin Rose.
At day’s end, she fights sleep, crawling all over me and babbling a conversation I only partially understand, but her laughter and squeals set off a cascade of fireworks in my heart that seems to match patterns with the heat lightning I see through the bedroom window, bright flashes of light behind distant purple cloud banks that illuminate the gloaming.
Sometimes, she’ll point to a stack of books on the dresser and coo incessantly until I select one — “Snuggle Puppy,” or “All of Baby, Nose to Toes” — and read it with the proper amount of inflection and exaggeration. She’s a mama’s girl, as most toddlers are, so as soon as Tessa returns, she’s clamoring for her mother, ready to nurse and pass out.
Every night, she drifts off full and warm and protected and happy, on a soft bed surrounded by parents and puppies and all of the trappings of American privilege, a far cry from the inglorious death of another little girl, 23-month-old Valeria Martinez, whose image I cannot shake.
Valeria drowned last month in the Rio Grande River, along with her 25-year-old father, Oscar. The image of them face down against the reeds on the Mexican side of the river, which they’d tried to cross, was heartbreaking: His shirt pulled up over her lower body, meant to keep her from being swept away by the current … her arm thrown over one shoulder, depending on her daddy until the last to deliver her to safety … both still, unmoving, lungs filled with brown river water and lifeless eyes submerged beneath the surface.
I try to put myself in that father’s position, but I can’t begin to fathom the danger he must have felt his family was in to leave El Salvador in order to walk across Mexico and attempt entry into a country where so many of his people are turned away, sent back or held in detention centers. I can’t begin to wrap my head around the abject poverty, the complete and total absence of opportunity, the abject dread of daily existence, the constant fear of violence, that must have sent him plunging into those churning waters. I can’t comprehend the unwavering faith that regardless of what he might have heard about how he and his family would be received, it had to be better than the things they were fleeing.
I can’t do it. From the comfort of my bed looking out the window of my house on a half-acre of East Tennessee suburban property filled with more possessions and trinkets and baubles than Oscar Martinez ever owned in his life … I can’t put myself in his place. Our experiences are so far removed from one another’s that any empathy I may have is ludicrous in the face of his reality.
Of what was his reality. Staring at that photo, I feel only an overwhelming sense of grief. Not because I knew him personally, but because everything he wanted for his baby girl was within his sights … and yet he couldn’t give it to her. He couldn’t save her. I have no doubt that, in the fleeting final moments of his life, he saw the lights of America, and as water began filling his lungs to steal his breath and pouring into his ears to muffle the screams of the drowning daughter on his back … all of the hopes and plans and dreams gave way to final, crushing desperation right before the river claimed them.
I think a lot about his final moments, and I feel a weight that I hope is shared by any compassionate individual. I wonder, sometimes, if the anesthesia of political bickering has numbed our basic humanity. I mean, if we’re at a point where we’re quibbling over the how horrible the conditions have to be at these detention centers before they can accurately be described as “concentration camps,” something is very, very wrong with us. There’s an inherent sickness run amok in this country, and the deaths of Oscar and Valeria — or more importantly, how we perceive and discuss those deaths — are further proof.
It’s all too easy to use their bodies as nothing more than chess pieces in an argument against the president’s hardline immigration policies or as a blanket condemnation of Democratic refusal to negotiate. It’s all too easy to pass judgment on Oscar’s merits as a father for bringing his family north and for attempting to cross illegally. It’s all too easy to sneer with disdain at the ones who do make it, legally or illegally, because they’re seen as leeches on an overtaxed welfare system.
Such arguments do nothing, absolutely nothing, to keep the Rio Grande from claiming more bodies. And the fact that we’ll suspend the partisan sniping — some of us, anyway — for today in order to celebrate Independence Day … it rings hollow. In Washington, D.C., tanks will roll down the street and fireworks will illuminate the night sky and speaker after pompous speaker will declare how great this nation is … while somewhere in a cemetery in San Salvador, the fresh earth over the graves of Oscar and Valeria begins its work of laying claim to their bodies.
Ironically, their deaths are symbolic of how great they and so many like them think this country really is. They literally died to get here; the countrymen and women who share their skin color sit in squalor behind wire fences because they, too, believe in the greatness of America. Maybe some of us, on this day of celebration, can pledge to work a little harder, so that one of these days, we can actually be the shining city on the hill those who seek to come here believe us to be.